Freedom of Conscience and the Unity of the Church

January 24th, 2018

This article is the third in a series by the author entitled "Why I am Committed to the Unity of the United Methodist Church." Read Part One and Part Two.

This series of blogs has not developed how I had planned, so I have decided to look at some other topics which for various reasons seem important at a particular time. The reason for this one is personal. In a recent report relating to the Uniting Methodist Conference held in Atlanta, a quotation from one of my presentations on freedom of conscience has been severely (and I think unfairly) criticized. I am quoted as saying the following: "Some of the first steps toward unity will be to develop mutual respect for the sincerity of one another’s convictions and mutual respect for each other’s freedom of conscience before God. The Book of Discipline is holding back UM unity because it is full of rules and restrictions that leave no room for following one’s conscience, a value that Wesley held in high esteem."

As my presentation was not a read lecture but made freely on the basis of short notes, I am not sure whether this is a verbatim quote or not, but it does reflect key aspects of my thought. Here, I want to explore key aspects of a Wesleyan understanding of freedom of conscience and how I think this helps us as we work for the visible unity of the church.

When John Wesley began to hold conferences with his preachers, he published the minutes which became key documents setting out the doctrine and practice of early Methodism. Over the years, this process of publishing minutes became what we now have as the Book of Discipline. Wesley’s minutes were much shorter and more focused than our present BOD, allowing for considerable freedom and innovation (the point I was making in part of the quote above). What is interesting is that in the 1749 Disciplinary Minutes the following is stated:

"How far does each of us agree to submit to the unanimous judgement of the rest?

And it was answered, in speculative things, each can only submit as his judgement shall be convinced. In every practical point, so far as we can without wounding our several consciences.

Can Christians submit any further than this to any man, or number of men upon the earth?

It is undeniably plain he cannot, either to Pope, Council, Bishop, or convocation. In this is the grand principle of every man’s right to private judgement, in opposition to implicit faith in man. …. ‘Every man must think for himself, since every man must give account of himself to God.' "

The principle is laid down that even when all other members of conference agree on an issue a member who disagrees must be free to follow his (there were only men then) conscience. This is not an isolated statement; it is something deeply rooted in John Wesley’s theology. In order to understand what Wesley meant by this and why he insisted on it, we need to note the following:

Firstly, freedom of conscience is a deeply theological concept rooted in human responsibility before God. While a doctrine of divine judgment is not popular today, it is the foundation of Wesley’s understanding of freedom of conscience. It is because all human beings will have to give an account to God for the way they lived that they must be free to live in a way that they are firmly convinced is in accordance with the will of God.

Second, a Wesleyan understanding of freedom of conscience is rooted in the recognition that all human beings are finite and fallen creatures, and therefore all our knowledge including our theological and ethical knowledge is subject to ignorance, mistakes and distortions. Even when we are most convinced that our theological and ethical viewpoint is correct, there is always the possibility that it is wrong. Therefore, all human judgments — including those of church leaders and conferences — are subject to error.

Third, because we are responsible before God, we must strive to the best of our ability to bring our theological and ethical ideas and our practices into conformity with what we are convinced is God’s will.

Fourth, because our understanding of God’s will is imperfect so our practice will be imperfect and subject to error and mistake.

Fifth, because God is just, God does not require us to do the impossible — that is, to have perfect errorless understandings of God’s will and therefore errorless ways of living. What God requires is that we act out of deep love for God and our neighbors even when we are mistaken. I have explored this in more detail herehere and here.

Sixth, to force people to act against their conscience by doing that which they believe is against God’s will or not to do that which they believe to be God’s will is extremely dangerous, for the conscience is the internal guardian against sin. If people go against their conscience once, it becomes easier to do so again. The conscience is weakened and wounded and thus no longer performs its role in promoting holiness of life.

Seventh, because we are all subject to mistakes and errors, and because people’s consciences ought not to be wounded, no person, church leader, conference or other body of people has the right or the duty to force us to act against what we believe to be right. It is always possible that the dissenter might be right — as Wesley argued was the case in the Reformation.

Eighth, this does not make a person’s conscience the ultimate authority in the church, nor does it mean that people are free to do what they want. Wesley strongly affirmed the authority of scripture but recognized that because of human limitations we will come to different interpretations of scripture. We must strive to come to a better understanding of what scripture requires; in this process, we need each other. Together, we can come to a more adequate understanding of scripture.

Ninth, this does not mean that we must just let our fellow Christians, and other people in general, act in a way that we believe to be wrong. Rather, we must strive to convince them in love, using scripture and reason, that their viewpoint is wrong. However, they must not be coerced to act contrary to their conscience.

What does this mean for our understanding of the unity of the church?

  • We need to recognize that faithful Christians with a deep commitment to obeying the will of God in their lives, and who sincerely seek to discern God’s will in their lives and the lives of their communities, will come to different conclusions as to what God’s will requires.
  • Such differences are not because one group is willfully rejecting what they know to be God’s will and the other group is faithful to what they know to be God’s will. (This is not to say that there are not situations where this is the case).
  • Nor are such differences necessarily because one group submits to the authority of scripture and another group does not. Both may be equally seeking to submit to the authority of scripture but are coming to different conclusions as to what it means.
  • The differences arise from the reality of the limitations of human existence.
  • Such differences ought not to be reasons for Christians separating into different churches. On the contrary, because we recognize the limitations of all our knowledge we need those committed Christians who disagree with us. It is their faithful critique that calls us to reevaluate our positions and may help us bring them into greater conformity with the will of God.
  • This does not mean that there are no boundaries, that all views and practices are acceptable. But it does mean that where we recognize each other as committed siblings in Christ seeking to faithfully serve God in the world, we ought to so structure our church life as to provide for genuine differences of conscience.

In our present debates in The UMC on the performance of same-gender marriages and the ordination of openly gay and lesbian people, we are, I believe, in a situation where equally faithful Christians sincerely seeking to discern and follow the will of God have come to different conclusions. The challenge before us is how to structure the church in a way which respects this genuine difference of conscience. It is easy but wrong to write off those who disagree with us as hateful and bigoted or disobedient and rebellious. While this may be true of some, it is not true of all.

Wesley proposed that we should be harsher in judging our own motives than those of others, for we know our own sin. This does not mean we must sacrifice our convictions. In his biography A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes how when he was imprisoned on Robin Island, he went out his way to relate to his captors in two ways. First, he did not write them off as evil and hateful; he treated them with respect and dignity. The second way was to spend time learning their language, history, and culture so that he could understand why it was they had come to oppress him and his people. It was precisely this that enabled him to be both deeply committed to working for liberation and justice and, at the same time, to pursue reconciliation.

It could be argued that he was able to make such a significant contribution to liberation and justice because he respected those who oppressed him as people and understood what shaped and motivated them. We can actively pursue what we are convinced is right in a way that both respects those who disagree with us and empathetically seeks to understand why they disagree with us. This is not only a prerequisite for unity, but is also the basis on which we can expect others to hear our critique and maybe even change their minds.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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